Shagaret al-Dor Street in Zamalek where the ministry of culture is located was still buzzing with people supporting the protests of intellectuals at the newly appointed culture minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz this week. Hundreds of people stood, while others sat on the marble stairs of the residential building in front of the ministry watching and listening to performances from Egyptian musicians and singers.
Cultural activities and performances have continued every night on the stage erected before the ministry’s gates three weeks ago since the intellectuals’ sit-ins began. But this week’s performances were different, since politically charged songs were now being belted out against president Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and the minister of culture.
The Cairo Opera Ballet Company performed excerpts from the ballet Zorba, and renowned Egyptian harpist Manal Mohie al-Din performed pieces for the audience. Mohie al-Din is an artist who closely follows developments in the arts, strongly voicing her views against what she considers to be the “Brotherhoodisation” of the cultural scene.
Marimba player Nesma Abdel-Aziz and Ines Abdel-Dayem, the recently-sacked chairperson of the Cairo Opera House and a renowned flutist, have also shared in the performances, as have the Cairo Opera House's National Arabic Music Ensemble and the Talents Development Centre.
Inside the ministry, intellectuals, artists, filmmakers, poets and novelists continued their sit-in among a collection of painted banners protesting against Abdel-Aziz and Morsi’s policies.
A huge banner by Hossam Taha featuring Abdel-Aziz wearing the costume of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had the words “who are we?” written on it, a reference to one of Abdel-Aziz’s statements to the effect that he did not know the intellectuals occupying the ministry and claiming that they were not Egyptian intellectuals.
The group included well-known Egyptian novelists, poets, writers, and filmmakers like Bahaa Taher, Mohammed Abdel-Moaati Hegazy, Magdy Ahmed Ali, and others.
Other banners demanding that the minister and the president step down from power had been hung in the ministry’s corridors, along with paintings depicting a beautiful woman wearing the Egyptian flag and symbolising Egypt standing before a writer giving her his pen or a musician giving her his instruments.
“The revolution is a week away from now. The Tahrir spirit is back,” said Mona Mohammed, a member of the protestors sitting in front of the ministry. The political songs and the enthusiasm of the singers were there to encourage people to protest on 30 June against Morsi’s attempts to “Brotherhoodise” the ministry and the country, she said.
Director Magdy Ahmed Ali told the Weekly that there were plans to protest on 30 June, but that these were not being publicised for now. However, he said that intellectuals, artists, poets, novelists and filmmakers from across the country would converge on the capital on 30 June, demanding that Morsi step down and liberate Egypt from a “fascist regime.”
Intellectuals from Alexandria would move from the city’s Beiram al-Tunsi Theatre and Al-Anfoushi Cultural Palace toward Al-Qaed Ibrahim Square where the protest was scheduled, he said. Others would continue their sit-in at the ministry in order to protect it from attempts by Salafists or Brotherhood members to end the protests.
“There are also other plans, but I don’t want to discuss them now,” said artist Sameh al-Sereti, one of the protestors at the ministry, adding that surprise counted in the campaign against the “Brotherhoodisation” of culture in Egypt.
“I am really proud of our intellectuals,” Ehsan Fayzi, one of the residents of the buildings in front of the ministry, told the Weekly. Fayzi said that the protests had raised spirits and the feeling of belonging to the homeland. “I was not one of those who protested in Tahrir Square in January 2011, but on 30 June I will definitely go to the Itihadiyya Palace to fight for freedom and social equality,” Fayzi said.
The intellectuals had also organised groups to go to archaeological sites, museums and monuments to raise awareness of the threats against them during the 30 June protests.
Kamilia Atris, a member of the committee in charge, told the Weekly that this was being carried out in collaboration with a group of engineers, archaeologists and activists concerned about the protection of Egypt’s monuments and antiquities. The group organised a silent protest last week in front of the Cairo governorate building in order to protest against the spread of new concrete buildings in the streets and alleys of Old Cairo.
“This is damaging the urban character of historic Cairo,” archaeologist Nairy Hampikian told the Weekly, adding that Cairo has suffered much poor planning over recent centuries, but this had become chaos over the past two years. As a result of the lack of security, ugly modern buildings had spread in the narrow allies of historic Cairo, disfiguring it permanently.
“In order to express our anger and rejection of what is happening to Cairo, we protested on the steps of the Cairo governorate,” Hampikian said. Historic Cairo is a vivid example of the city’s continuous history, she said, adding that its value came not only from the large number of monuments, but also from the city’s crafts, streets and customs.
It was for this reason, Hampikian said, that UNESCO had listed historic Cairo on its World Heritage List as a city and not just as a group of monuments in 1979. However, today the urban structure of the city was under threat by those who did not hesitate to destroy old buildings in order to construct ugly residential buildings.
“This is threatening the city with being taken off the UNESCO list,” Hampikian said, “since it will cause it to lose its distinguished architectural character and urban structure.” Moreover, “the new buildings are time bombs for the monuments and the area’s residents, since in many cases building codes have not been properly followed.” As a result, the buildings could collapse at any time, destroying neighbouring monuments and killing residents, she said.
Other monuments had been subjected to looting or destruction. The protestors had asked the government to freeze construction licenses, she said, and to remove illegal buildings and extra floors and not to provide the illegal buildings with drainage systems or electricity.
They had also urged the government to work in collaboration with civil society and local councils in order to safeguard and protect the historic city. Providing long-term plans to spruce up and develop the living standards of people in the city was another demand, she said.
The Egyptian Writers’ Union (EWU) organised an urgent general assembly meeting on Friday to vote on a measure to withdraw its confidence from president Morsi and to call for early presidential elections and the creation of a national unity government. The EWU also intended to demand that a new constitution be drafted that reflected the national consensus.
Author Youssef al-Qaed described the EWU’s decisions as an honour for all Egyptian intellectuals and an effort made to defend the honour of all Egyptian writers and intellectuals. The decisions “were the first of their kind taken in the history of the Union,” al-Qaed said, adding that the decisions did not only withdraw confidence from Morsi, but also provided a road map for the period after him.
He said that the late Brotherhood intellectual Sayed Qutb had changed his ideas after visiting the United States in the 1950s. Before leaving for the States, Qutb had been a promising literary critic and a poet, he said, but after his return he wrote Maalem al-Tariq (Landmarks on the Path), which the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser described as “a book with thoughts that stand behind a large organised group.”
“Writers are the conscience of the nation, and they must express the nation’s dreams and aspirations,” the head of the EWU, Mohammed Salmawy, told the Weekly, adding that Brotherhood elements had attempted to foil the Union’s resolutions, but these had not succeeded.
However, the mobde’oun men agl al-thawra (Innovators for the Revolution) movement criticised the decisions taken by the EWU, describing it as being politicised and a branch of the tamarod movement and opposition National Salvation Front despite its objective of being a professional union expressing the interests of writers and intellectuals.
The Movement sent a press release to the Weekly saying that the decisions taken by the EWU did not express the opinions of all writers and only reflected those of 111 of the Union’s 2,000 members. It said that the decisions had not followed correct procedures, since “well-known writers who are members of the EWU expressed their personal opinions and their political belonging in the decision.”
Salmawy was a member of the Al-Masreyeen Al-Ahrar Party, it said, and Emad Abu Ghazi was a member of the Al-Dostour Party. Ibrahim Atteya, head of the Sinai Writers’ Union, said that he was now collecting signatures to withdraw confidence from Salmawy, claiming that the Union should demand an end to the violence rather than oppose the regime.
In response to the intellectuals’ protests, unidentified assailants attacked the sit-in outside the Beiram al-Tunsi Theatre in Alexandria on Monday night.
Eyewitnesses described the attack as “vicious” and they injured several protestors. According to Ahmed Shawky of the Alexandrian theatre community, several thugs armed with bladed weapons attacked activists attending the sit-in, injuring theatre director Ahmed Abu al-Nasr, who is now in hospital, as well as director Osama Gaber.
The Beiram al-Tunsi sit-in was intended to demonstrate how state-owned cultural spaces could be effectively run by independent cultural activists and artists. It had also served as a platform for discussions on cultural policy and the role of Egypt’s culture ministry.